“I had an admiration for the West . . . It looked like my fate was laying in the West.”
“If you really want to be a realist and if you can be a little realistic, the film becomes universal, somehow, because humans are the same everywhere I believe; they do not change. The main values, the base of a human being is the same everywhere in the world. So, I always think that I make very local movies and I am so surprised later when everybody in the world understands it.”
Turkish cinema had been relatively unknown to the outside world until 1997, when Nuri Bilge Ceylan brought its landscapes to viewers for the first time globally and quite successfully, keeping the essence of the locale and identity intact, with The Small Town. His vision was global, syncing the Turkish landscape with European styles and techniques.
Ceylan, at present, is aware of his country’s artistic past and history, and somehow his arrival at this juncture has been quite open-ended and fractured. Turkey’s long path to modernism, identity, and injecting European values into the nation has had a profound impact on its psyche, and Ceylan, being an auteur, has gone further into that zone and extracted these broken identities, moorings among monuments, death among dilemmas, and synergies in small cities. Ceylan’s European leaning in terms of literature and cinema does not deter him from digging deep into the makings of a distinct Turkish canon of cinema. His camera finds those landscapes, which hitherto had not been discovered by any Turkish filmmaker: the pastoral provincialism of a small village, the benign anonymity of metro life, youth bearing the brunt of change. His lens has a sombre, melancholic outlook towards daily Turkish life. Ceylan kept a conscious eye to avoid making another film in the European art house genre instead of a dramatic study of Turkish life, which is what he felt a worthwhile Turkish film should be, and his voice appeared to lead him precisely in that direction. He soon realised that the theme he wanted to capture had been forged into the Turkish experience and yet managed to retain a European style.
A still from Three Monkeys (2008); Zynofilm, NBC Film, Pyramid Productions
Ceylan grappled a lot with the identity of modernism and what it meant to be Turkish in modern Turkey. When he began his foray into filmmaking, the temptation of mimicking the West was real. He shared the same fear with another Istanbullu, author Orhan Pamuk.
“Like all other Istanbul writers with one eye on the West, I sometimes suffer in confusion” (Istanbul: Memories of the City)
Like Pamuk, out of this fear and confusion Ceylan creates a world where the dichotomy of the East and West merge at the brink of modernity. He sees Turkey on the verge of collapse, gradual decline where identity crisis itself is called an identity. Unlike the vastly colonized countries of the twentieth century, Turkey’s destruction does not originate from outsiders; here, violence stems from within – destruction remains more symbolic yet invisible, and Ceylan records these passing images of Turkey with his brooding long shots where sometimes characters overpower nature or vice versa. His deep dive into Turkish identity remains intensely autobiographical; he has hardly made any film that is not personal. All his characters are modern and a majority of them are driven by an inner migration – a yearning for city life and relocation to the city, a craving to be a part of the world where anonymity is omnipresent.
For Ceylan, the location remains the most important thing in his films, which he uses as a character. In fact, from his very first film, Cocoon (1995), the search for the soul of Turkey is the most potent factor.
“In my films the landscapes connect the characters to a sense of something cosmic. I try to recapture those moments in life where you suddenly feel that connection to a wider universe.”
Ceylan is a searcher of unknown places; he borrows from the Antonioni-esque (Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni) theorem of location, where not only does the narrative take a swerve or the characters find solace in rustic landscapes, but the landscapes themselves cause melancholy and frustration in the lives portrayed in the film. Antonioni used the post-World War Italian landscape to cause despair, ennui, and fracture in the human condition, while Ceylan supplants the urban location with the Turkish rural setting where characters are doomed to perish, unable to make a mark in the threshold of evanescence.
A still from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011); NBC Film, Production 2006, 1000 Volt
The filmmaker doesn’t use the rural landscape to move away from the humdrum of city life, but to search for the gentle stream of humanity which flows deep below, and then he throws the sheet off from our nebulous lens.
“When I look at the countryside, I don’t only see poverty or something, I see what I lost in years in the city. I see other human values.”
Ceylan doesn’t posit the rural life as a utopia, simple and unadulterated. He puts it as a foil to the city of Istanbul. He discards the romantic idealism of country life as nothing less than privileged indifference to most people’s needs. As a person born in Istanbul but brought up in a smaller village, Ceylan has developed a sense of hybridity – a more natural outlook towards misfortune befallen on naive village folks; an ambivalent attitude towards rural life, where the protagonist’s growing demands are unfulfilled and on his adventures through the city too, he must suffer the same anonymity and find shelter in isolation. Ceylan lays down his own cards on the table and any viewer with a dispassionate look is obliged to do the same. He sees the countryside as nothing less than an extension of the city, as he is aware of the transition of Turkey. The dichotomy of the country and city life remains the most integral point in his filmography. Raymond Williams echoed the same sentiment much earlier in his book The Country and the City (1973, p-289):
“The country and the city are changing historical realities, both in themselves and in their interrelations. Moreover, in our own world, they represent only two kinds of settlements. Our real social experience is not only of the country and the city in their most singular forms, but of many kinds of intermediate and social and physical organisation.
Yet the ideas and the images of the country and the city retain their great force. Their persistence has a significance matched only by the great actual variation, social and historical, of the ideas themselves. Clearly, the contrast of the country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of the central part of our experience and of the crises of our society.”
Ceylan uses the landscape as a springboard to dive into Turkish society to bring out the dichotomy of city and country life, loneliness and pessimism encompassing his entire filmography. He is meticulous about this setting. His films explore both the interior psychological topography as well as the physical terrain in its most original form and man-made structure. The amalgamation of both these terrains makes his films a good study of the depth of the human condition. This Ceylan-ian depth of style makes his films slow, but he clearly refutes that charge:
“Life is going faster and faster and, in this fastness, we miss many things and I think the tempo of my soul is like that. I can sense the world in this tempo. So, it’s not a reasonable or analytical decision. It’s perfectly my sense … life is so slow, much slower than in my film.”
A still from The Wild Pear Tree (2018); Zynofilm, Memento Films Production, Detailfilm
Borne out of this relationship between interior and exterior landscapes is also a complex range of secondary tensions and interactions between the words and images, men and women, love and sex, the individual and the society, permanence and evanescence, loneliness and engagement, dreams and nightmares, modernity and primordial society, and ultimately, between nihilism and meaning.
The formalist language of Ceylan’s early two films, The Small Town (1997) and Clouds of May (1999), share the same themes of unattended rural lives, unpolished images of nascent rural beauty, the protagonist’s growing sense of despair. Uzak (2002) marks his first break from rural Turkey and the protagonist plunges into the whirlwind of metro life and finds it hard to deal with himself. In Climates (2006), Ceylan further step backs from his recurring autobiographical vestiges of memory and makes a film on a couple’s fractured love, almost mimicking Antonioni’s favourite trope of borderline infidelity. Three Monkeys (2008) remains his most stylised film till date with a desaturated look and entering a genre he has never entered before: crime thriller. But he makes it in his own style. In Once Upon a time in Anatolia (2011), Ceylan again goes back to his favourite rural landscape, the Anatolian steppe, where a murder mystery plays out and is a haunted prying of intimate personal loss and longing in a dreary pensive nocturnal journey. Winter Sleep (2014) marks the beginning of his epic style of filmmaking of more than three hours, where characters indulge in long intimate conversations, with an extensive voyeuristic view into the protagonists’ social, marital, and economic crises. Continuing with this epic style, Ceylan again goes back to rural Turkey and captures the arch of narrative through the personal crisis of the protagonist who bears the brunt of modern Turkey in The Wild Pear Tree (2018).
Amidst all the discussions of the formal elements, it is easy to ignore the social, political, economic, and cultural implications of his films. Throughout Ceylan’s oeuvre are ruminations on the implication of modernity in Turkey, deep class-consciousness, dissolution of family traditions, breakdown of family, and redefining of basic existential realities and aspirations in modern Turkey. This negotiation between these exterior and interior worlds makes the filmmaker an important auteur of our time. His visual translation of physical space transcends into more foreboding of a meditational and spiritual nature.
Postcard From Province
Ceylan’s early two films, The Small Town and Clouds of May, reveal an homage to neorealist and cinema verité style of filmmaking. His interest is to capture the unadulterated rural life of Turkey with all its trials and tribulations. And in doing so, his storytelling develops subtlety. Although he is aware of the hardships of rural life, he does not make an obvious political statement because “it would be too direct”. He zooms out his area of focus:
“Young man surrounded by many restrictions in the countryside. If you deal with that you have to deal with the social situation. It’s kind of an obligation this time. But that was not the main thing for me. I never do things like that. It does not motivate me to make a film about social conditions. The human in his loneliness, that’s the only subject motivates me. We have to show the things that surround the person. It’s a background issue”.
The protagonist in the small town, a deeply estranged individual, meanders through the personal history of his family and a present crisis eating out both the village and him. Ceylan captures the unforgettable beauty of a rural family life gathered for a nocturnal picnic and urchins playing in steppes. The protagonist does not show sympathy; he curses and swears at everybody. The static monochromatic long take of him walking away from the camera with simultaneous voiceover is one of the earliest of many shots of filming from behind, which in Ceylan’s view leaves the audience to ponder on the emotions of characters where faces are not visible. It is as if he is inviting us to share sympathy with the characters.
In his very first film, Ceylan pleads for an authentic personal and national identity for the need of keeping identity through self-consciousness, and struggle against forgetting .The plethora of opportunity for Ceylan’s expressions of loneliness of characters living in small towns opened through The Small Town, a recurring theme visited multiple times in his later filmography. Born into a relatively well-off middle class family in Istanbul, and having spent his childhood in the small city of Yenice, Ceylan developed a knack for portraying characters who are privileged – professors, actors, writers, servicemen, etc. Though capitalism has not yet penetrated small cities and rural Turkey, Ceylan looks at all these places with the same gaze of suspicion and constantly evaluates the lives of the people in it. His earliest two films are deeply personal and have autobiographical elements. Moreover, casting his own relatives shows his bodacious nature and minimalism, the perfect blueprint of a debut filmmaker who later went on to make great films.
A still from The Small Town (1997); NBC Film
Melancholia in Metro
Ceylan’s third fiction, Uzak, drawing from his own personal life, is an ode to sombre meditations of human nature. The opening long static shot of Yusuf emerging after a long walk shows Ceylan’s take on the loneliness and alienation of a young boy from the village trying to find work in modern Istanbul. He uses the device of a long walk multiple times in the film. Here, a walk doesn’t mean only the physical kind: it has been used more as a transcendental technique to evoke stasis.
“. . . the new world in which spiritual and physical can co-exist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality – the transcendent.” (Transcendental Style in Film : Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer by Paul Schrader, page-108) .
It was as though this drifting through the city had rendered Yusuf transparent and set him bouncing between the provincialism of a small village, and the benign disinterest of a metropolis like Istanbul. The solitude of the cascading snow, crashing waves of the harbour, a broken deserted ship, a gloomy Bosphorus strait, all conjure up an image of Istanbul which is completely contradictory to the modern side of it. Ceylan himself accepts this –
“In real sense, I’m quite pessimistic of life and this reflects in my films.”
The all -pervading melancholia is nothing new to Istanbul’s landscape. Ceylan draws inspiration from the idea of ‘Huzun’ and Ara Guler’s photography on Istanbul to enunciate this sadness. According to Pamuk, ‘Huzun’ is a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life. It is the absence, not presence of Huzun, that causes distress to the sufferer. Mahmut, an upstart intellectual, having failed himself both in his personal and professional life, behaves eccentrically with his distant cousin Yusuf, and both grow a gulf between them even though they share the same room. Yusuf suffers from sexual angst as he roams around in a socially restricted neighbourhood and ogles at women, but his ultimate search of a job goes in vain. Mahmut suffers from spiritual angst as he is unable to connect with anyone. Huzun clouds over this entire film from the very outset till the end, and it becomes a communal feeling of Istanbul. Ceylan practices filmmaking of polyphonic narratives where multiple angles merge and events flow together retaining the true sense of worldview and this view has both, the share of Eastern and Western style. In the end, Istanbul emerges as a transitional and cosmopolitan space at the expense of the downfall of old Istanbul. The idea of exile sometimes inside the home and sometimes outside lurks big over Ceylan’s early films, where the protagonist only wishes it to disappear completely.
A still from Uzak (2002); NBC Film
Love Under the Scorching Heat
Breaking away from his three autobiographical films, in Climates (2006), Ceylan forays into the zone of fractured man-woman relationship, infidelity, and probing questions into male domination. The disease “malaise of love”, quoted by Antonioni, eats up both the protagonists of the film. Throughout Climates, Isa, a university professor, and Bahar, an art director who deals with urban bourgeoise angst, torture each other. The film begins with a ruin scene where Isa and Bahar, with their deafening silence and passive gaze, not only bring forth the instability of their relationship but create unresolved tension between expression and non-expression. Ceylan uses the background as a tribute to Antonioni. He finds a distinctive way of expressing existential tedium through this landscape. The estrangement between the protagonists is palpable, be it in the famous dinner scene or the beach scene. Though Ceylan alters the space multiple times, the relationship between Isa and Bahar remains cold. Antonioni argues:
“Film, fundamentally a visual art, should link its method of representation to the external appearance of nature and individuals because it is through this appearance that their interiority reveals itself.”
Ceylan uses the sweat over breast, or consistent neck pain, to measure the broken romantic relationship. The threat of infidelity looms large over the couple. Isa meets his former lover in a book shop and later, in one meeting, also rapes her. The scene is visually provocative, as Ceylan’s main interest is in in the power dynamics of the man and the woman, and the act of taking control over the body. Sexual temptation, whether indulged in or rejected, fails to make the characters feel alive. Ceylan’s mastery over alienation and anguish solidified much more with the film. His arrival remains the most decisive in the history of Turkish cinema. It was almost as if Turkey, with all its cultures of past and present, was waiting for him. The filmmaker single-handedly captures what remains of the past, what is happening, and what is to happen in Turkey’s lot.